Professor Myles Allen has spent thirty years studying global climate change, trying to working out what we can and can't predict. He was one of the first scientists to quantify the extent to which human actions are responsible for global warming. As a lead author on the 3rd Assessment by the International Panel on Climate Change in 2001, he concluded that ‘most of the observed global warming was due to human influence’. More recently, (having established that calculating a safe concentration of greenhouse gases was very difficult indeed), he worked out instead how many tonnes of carbon would be acceptable, a shift in emphasis that paved the way for the current Net Zero carbon emissions policy. Myles tells Jim Al-Khalili how our ability to predict climate change has evolved from the early days when scientists had to rely on the combined computing power of hundreds of thousands of personal computers. He sheds light on how the IPCC works and explains why, he believes, fossil fuel industries must be forced to take back the carbon dioxide that they emit. If carbon capture and storage technologies makes their products more expensive, so be it. Producer: Anna Buckley
Image Credit: Fisher Studios, Oxford.
Matthew Cobb on how we detect smells
It’s been estimated that humans are capable of detecting a trillion different smells. How is this possible when we have just 400 types of olfactory receptors located in the bridge of our nose? Matthew Cobb has spent many years studying maggots hoping to get to bottom of this problem. He spent several years studying the flirting rituals of fruit flies in Sheffield before moving to France to study at the world centre for fly research, not far from Paris. There are, of course, a lot of differences between maggots and humans but our olfactory systems have a lot in common.
Producer: Anna Buckley
Anya Hurlbert on seeing colour
As a professor of visual neuroscience at Newcastle University, Anya Hurlbert is one of our most respected researchers into the way we see colour. In a career as a physicist, physiologist, neuroscientist and physician at some of the great research institutes on both sides of the Atlantic, Anya’s investigations into how we perceive the colour of objects has transformed our view of how our predominantly visual brains function.
She explains how the multidisciplinary approach to research in vision from physics to psychology, and encounters with some leading Nobel Prize winners, has fostered a love of the slippery nature of colour. When, a few years ago, an online image of a blue and black striped dress spun virally out of control, it divided us all. Half of us were adamant the dress was white and gold, and the other half convinced it was blue and black, and it caused us all to question the objective way we think we see the world as it really is. Colour is, Anya argues, made in the mind, not just out there in the world and we don’t always see it in the same way.
And as she reveals to Jim, with recent technological advances in LED lighting, she’s turned her attention to the nature of light itself, and how by controlling its components, it could have a profound influence on both our state of mind and the appreciation of our rich world of colour.
Producer Adrian Washbourne
Optical communications pioneer Polina Bayvel
We’ve come to expect to be connected instantly to anywhere in the world and to have unlimited information at our fingertips. We shop online, stream music, download books and boxsets onto our electronic devices. We share videos of our pets just because we can. But how much time have you spent recently thinking about the remarkable feats of engineering that make all this possible?
Polina Bayvel has been at the forefront of creating the optical fibre networks that are capable of transporting vast quantities of data from one place to another: linking continents via cables laid under oceans or enabling computer systems in data centres to share information. Without these high speed networks, ultra-fast high-capacity broadband will remain a dream. Polina tells Jim Al Khalili how she moved to the UK from the Soviet Union when she was 12 and worked in industry for many years, before deciding that she wanted to set up a lab to find out what optical fibres were capable of: just how much data could they transport, and how fast?
Producer: Anna Buckley
2019 Nobel Prize winner for Physiology or Medicine, Sir Peter Ratcliffe
Sir Peter Ratcliffe, Director of Clinical Research at the Francis Crick Institute, as well as Director of Oxford University’s Target Discovery Institute – has dedicated his life to understanding the body’s molecular-level response to low oxygen levels, or ‘hypoxia’. He received the 2019 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine, along with two Americans, William Kaelin of Harvard and Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins, for successfully tackling one of physiology’s greatest puzzles - how our bodies sense and adapt so quickly to a lack of oxygen, at high altitude for example, or during sudden exercise.
He talks to Jim about how his early medical career led him into a deeply unfashionable area of medicine that would solve how and why our bodies are so clever at being able to fine tune themselves to keep functioning under a range of conditions. His early ground breaking discoveries may have been initially turned down by a major scientific journal, but he would go on to pave the way for promising new strategies to fight anaemia and many other challenging diseases, most notably cancer.
Producer Adrian Washbourne